Archdiocese moves toward large-scale parish closings

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Cardinal Timothy Dolan talks to reporters at St. Patrick's Cathedral in September. (AP Photo/Tina Fineberg)
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The Archdiocese of New York took a major step last week toward consolidating its dense network of 376 parishes, entering the final stages of planning for what is likely to result in the most significant sweep of parish closings seen here in recent memory.

Early last week, an advisory board that has been working for months with outside consultants to find ways to streamline the centuries-old archdiocese quietly sent its preliminary recommendations to local working groups—known as clusters—for review. It is the first time a broad consolidation plan such as this has been handled this way.

Among the locations being considered for closure by the committee, which is scheduled to issue its final blueprint to archbishop Cardinal Timothy Dolan in June, are the Church of St. John the Baptist and the Church of the Holy Innocents in Midtown Manhattan, according to internal documents obtained by Capital New York. Both would be consolidated into nearby St. Francis of Assisi on West 31st Street, which could take a new name.

St. John the Baptist, also on West 31st Street, is directly across from of Pennsylvania Station and a well known parish. It is run by the religious order of the Capuchin Franciscans and is home to the Saint Padre Pio Shrine, which attracts devotees to the 20th century saint. Holy Innocents on West 37th Street, the oldest building in the Fashion Center, was once known as the “actor's church.” Playwright Eugene O'Neill was baptized there in 1888. Some Masses are still celebrated there in Latin.

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It's unclear how many churches have been targeted for closure by the 40-member board. But archdiocesan officials acknowledge the closures could be far more significant than the last round, in 2007, when 21 parishes were closed amid protests by long-time worshipers. Dozens of churches could be shuttered in the current sweep.

“I can't put a number on it at this point because there's still a lot of process that needs to go through, but that certainly is a possibility,” Joseph Zwilling, the spokesman for the archdiocese, said last week.

Indeed, the recommendations of the advisory board are not final. The initial plan was sent back to the local working groups, which consist of clusters of four of five parishes each. Members of those groups have until June 8 to respond to the recommendations, perhaps challenging the recommendations that a particular parish should be closed. Dolan and his advisors will make final decisions by September.

St. John the Baptist's pastor, Rev. Thomas Franks, said last week that he was saddened by the recommendation. The parish was formed in 1840 and its current building constructed in 1871. It has few parishioners but offers a home away from home to commuters, attracting 500 worshipers for Masses each day, he said. Franks said Thursday that he had not had a chance to speak to others about how to respond. He could not be reached on Friday.

“We're still engaging in the cluster-planning process,” he said. “There's not a definite plan about it.”

While the Archdiocese of New York remains the core of Catholicism in America, with millions of parishioners under its pastoral care, it has struggled like other dioceses in the Northeast with dwindling attendance. Many parishes have had to rely on the archdiocese for financial support.

The round of consolidations and closures that occurred in 2007, which came to be known as the “realignment,” was decided on through a top-down process under Cardinal Edward Egan. At that time, 10 parishes were closed completely, while others established new locations or became missions attached to other parishes.

That process, which stretched on for more than five years, was conducted very differently from the current consolidation.

“In many senses, what was happening back in 2007 were the easy decisions to reach—the no brainers, if you will. It was much more a top-down process,” Zwilling said. “In this process, every parish is taking part. Every parish has been asked to do a self-evaluation and then to put forward proposals.”

That part has already occurred. From there, the parishes were grouped into 75 clusters that were asked to prepare their own plans for finding savings and working more efficiently together. Those suggestions, prepared with some assistance from consultants at the Reid Group, were used by the advisory board to develop the recommendations issued last week. Once the clusters respond, the advisory group will issue its final blueprint to Dolan.

The Archdiocese of New York includes Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island in the city an extends northward through Westchester and six upstate counties. Brooklyn and Queens form a separate diocese with Nassau and Suffolk counties and are not a part of the consolidation efforts. To the north, where parishes can be miles apart, the ultimate plan is more more likely to include ways to share resources rather than closures, Zwilling said.

The bulk of the closures are expected to take place in the Bronx and Manhattan, where many parishes were built as little as a block or two from the next as the church flourished in the last century. Some of those parishes may have attracted 800 people for Sunday Masses, but now struggle to fill the pews.

The closures could have significant real-estate implications, ushering onto the market hundreds of millions of dollars worth of coveted land across Manhattan.

While Zwilling said the value of property the churches are built on is not a factor in preparing a plan for the closures, it could become an issue if—hypothetically—the cardinal were left to decide between closing two parishes.

“If you put everything together and it came out exactly equal and you need to choose between the two, would that become a factor in making the decision? Maybe,” he said. “But it's not a motivating factor.”

He said the question of real estate has been considered from a broad perspective. Should the church sell some of the property, the archdiocese would not be able to use the proceeds for operational expenses. The money would need to be given to the parish where that congregation went, or to other parishes nearby.

“Church law states that the money that is realized through the sale of property—of church property—must go, must follow the people, must go to the continue to care for the people,” Zwilling said.